A Look Behind The Veil

Give Rick Moody this much: whatever "The Black Veil" is, it isn't just another book about a writer and his bouts with depression and addiction. The author of "The Ice Storm" does discuss the depression that overcame him in his 20s, his alcoholism and drug abuse and his kicking same in some detail. He also writes at length about the Nathaniel Hawthorne story "The Minister's Black Veil." He pours out the research he's done on his 18th- century forebear Joseph (Handkerchief) Moody, the minister upon whom Hawthorne modeled the veil-wearing protagonist of his story. For good measure, he throws in the whole text of the Hawthorne story. The resulting book is surely one of the oddest memoirs ever written. Occasionally wonderful, it is also self-indulgent, infuriating and fascinating, sometimes all on the same page.

Like the minister in Hawthorne's story, who alienated his flock, his friends and his fiancee by donning a veil for no apparent reason, Moody is obsessed with what's hid-den: what's hidden in the past, what we hide from friends and loved ones, what we hide from ourselves. A lot of "The Black Veil" is spent turning over rocks, spilling secrets, "because I was like the guy with the veil, or he was like me, or at least the idea of the veil connected that time back in the early history of the nation to me getting out of the [rehab] hospital." He ransacks the Moody genealogy, searching for clues to the family psyche in dusty town halls and mossy Maine graveyards. He retraces his unhappy suburban childhood ("I had heard much abuse of these words, I love you, in television commercials and musicals and Hollywood movies. I had never quite heard them in real life"). He treats us to a dark and drolly funny tour of his time with drugs, including one really ghastly--maybe the definitively ghastly--Christmas. And all the while we keep waiting, in vain it turns out, for a structure to emerge. Rarely has a book been more dazzling, or more baffling. And just when it looks like we're getting to the pay-off, it's over. After taking a few last-minute swipes at bloody-minded patriarchal, puritanical white America, Moody's out the door, leaving the reader wondering, what the hell was that all about? OK, that's not quite fair. He does close with an exquisite short story, the best thing in the book by far. The only trouble is, it's by somebody else. But boy, that Hawthorne, can he write.